Upon my first visit to Southwark Playhouse, walking into the auditorium I am not disappointed- Jacqueline Gunn’s sprawling set design brings the audience in to the already intimate stage area, as we sit surrounding the three actors who are pre-set when the house opens. Straight away I am reminded of Rick Carter’s set design for War Horse at the National: canvas pasted on the back wall with charcoal sketches of warfare and charred scenery, whilst the physical set onstage is very minimal. The circumstances are set from the off, causing an excited energy among the spectators as we wait for the lights to dim and the action to begin.
I say action, as For King And Country, written by John Wilson is set during World War One, in a regiment where Private Hamp (Adam Lawrence) is put on trial for the crime of desertion, a matter of high stakes indeed. Hamp does not seem to grasp the severity of his situation, despite characters such as Lieutenant Hargreaves (Lloyd Everitt) and Corporal of the Guard (Cameron Robertson) stressing to him that the usual punishment for this type of crime is death. So the question rises within the company whether Private Hamp is simply ‘gormless’ or that there could be something deeper troubling him, in turn introducing during to the trial the matter of mental health.
Not only is the play being performed in the year 2018 because it marks the centenary of WWI, it is also most topical as, 100 years on, there is still a stigma and lack of understanding attached to mental health. Private Hamp’s unwillingness to describe his thoughts and feelings before the trial turns the questioning by Lieutenant Hargreaves into what we recognise now as a therapy session, as he seeks to find what spurred him on to carry out such a “treacherous” act. There is conversation around suicidal thoughts when Hargreaves urges Hamp to recognise how the events of war make him feel and in turn how that influences his actions, in an environment which dismisses Hamp’s expressed anxiety as “cold feet”.
For King And Country sheds a light on the inner struggle each and every soldier had to fight for themselves because there was no support, an example of this being when Medical Officer O’Sullivan, played by Andrew Cullum, physically scoffs at the very idea of “mental” health, his scepticism an all too real attitude of the period, as soldiers were expected to pull themselves together for the good of morale, never wanting to burden anyone with the turmoil they had to endure. Thankfully, nowadays there are many organisations and charities that offer support to those who need it, and this play shows just how far society has come in its attitude towards this.
For King And Country is playing Southwark Playhouse until 21 July 2018
Photo: Alex Brenner